Thursday, March 1, 2007

Couture readies himself for climb up Mount Sylvia

By Jason Probst

You’ve been out of the game for a while, lost two of your last three bouts by knockout, and the critics have marked you as past due, like a gallon of expired milk. No one will ever forget what you did. It’s just that the conventional wisdom suggests that your time, glorious and defining, has finally passed. But now you’re coming back, and against no soft touch.

In other words, it’s the essential Randy Couture moment.

Hoping to capture the UFC heavyweight belt he won twice -- in 1997 and 2001, when he was making 35 look like the new 25 -- he squares off against champion Tim Sylvia, who’ll stand 6’8 and cut weight to make the 265-lb. class limit. It could be a sense of déjà vu for fans, who may remember Couture in a similar situation before his 2003 bout with Chuck Liddell, as “The Natural” had lost two punishing bouts to Josh Barnett and Ricco Rodriguez, larger heavyweights whom he was very effective against in the first half of both those contests.

Marked as a 2-1 underdog against the streaking Liddell, Couture came out and steamrolled him instead.

A year removed from retirement after losing his rubber match to Liddell -- now the UFC’s light heavyweight champ -- Couture’s return is motivated by several reasons. He still feels he’s got the skills to compete. Being away from the fight game has left something of a vacuum, where the once-honed competitive urge always had something and someone to grind on. Couture split with his long time wife, Tricia, and with four kids in the mix and a new girlfriend (now wife) it was a considerable stressor occupying the last few months of his career before he called it quits.

“I think retirement or maybe retiring from competition and training, that’s what I missed most. I still wasn’t retired,” Couture told “I think I got busier then I’ve ever been, taking care of some of these other businesses, getting them up and running. The biggest thing was settling my divorce. I was in the middle of it and getting some family items off my back. As soon as that was done, I felt a lot more like myself. I missed being in gym, and in competition.”

Couture recently relocated to Las Vegas from his longtime stomping grounds in Portland, Oregon; in November, he had a submission wrestling match with Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, a grappling whiz who’s one of the elite competitors in the world. The two battled to a draw.

“It was definitely gradual steps. Moving out of Oregon and kind of getting a fresh start in Vegas. Getting my divorce settled, and settling issues with friends and family, it took six to eight months. It was a while, but think getting the opportunity to do grappling and professional submission brought home the desire to want to continue to compete. I had a blast doing that. I performed well physically, even with physical opportunity to get to train and prepare.”

Couture has been a staple at UFC events, doing commentary and post-fight interviews. But it wasn’t enough to scratch the itch, he admits, and may have only fueled the urge to return by putting him so close to the place he once thrived.

So how did he get the skills back?

“I never lost it,” he said.

A big factor was watching Sylvia’s last defense, a five-round decision against Jeff Monson at November’s UFC 65. Giving up some ten inches and 25 pounds to the behemoth champ, Monson’s strategy was no mystery given his grappling pedigree. Monson’s execution of that strategy, however, largely consisted of lower-leg takedown attempts, low-percentage moves that usually ended up with him having to work to gain top position on the ground, instead of initially putting the 6’8 champion on his back. Couture said that to beat Sylvia, you need to get deep into a man‘s sphere of balance, lock torsos, and go to town.

And that’s exactly what Couture -- a world-class Greco-Roman wrestler who was an alternate for several Olympic squads -- does best.

“I saw flaws in Jeff’s approach in way he set up his shots and how far away he shot. You have to take Tim’s body and take him down. My style of wrestling is I’m gonna get past Tim’s hands. And clinch him and trip him and take him down from there. You know, that’s the biggest deal I saw,” Couture said.

Monson did have some success in getting top position, waging agonizingly long battles with Sylvia on the ground that got boos from the crowd in Sacramento’s Arco Arena that November night. He’d get a shin. Sylvia would sprawl. Monson would scramble around and Sylvia would deny him the top, and the two largely battled to a stalemate on the ground. It was all forgotten by the subsequent main event, where Georges St. Pierre knocked out Matt Hughes, and anybody who was there probably suffered some degree of hearing damage. But it wasn’t the most exciting bout.

“Tim was having to deal with everything Monson had on ground, in fact, dominating him in many of those (sequences). But he didn’t step up and open up. He just coasted it out in my opinion,” Couture added. “It may be because of his corner. It seemed to me at that point he should have gone after him and knocked him out.”

Sylvia played the percentages, though, and carefully out pointed Monson, landing a few strikes and having some own success in the 5-round bout to keep his title.

So why fight the guy?

Liddell’s evolved sprawl-and-brawl clearly inspired the retirement, in the harsh fashion that can make MMA a rough sport to watch when well-liked fighters like Couture come up short. After losing the last two of their bouts by punishing knockout, Couture himself seemed to feel like it was time to hang ‘em up. But styles make fights, and Sylvia, in his opinion, couldn’t be more different than Liddell; his loose-limbed, let-it-all-hang-out bombing style is a stark contrast to Sylvia, who seems content to let foes downshift when they realize they can’t commit to trading with him, yet can’t take him down easily, either. Sylvia grinds you down by letting you run out of places to hide, then simply out-wills you in a test of conditioning.

Or, he can knock you silly with a single shot when he explodes, as he did with a perfectly left head kick against Tra Telligman, or in blasting out Andrei Arvloski with a right uppercut just moments after getting dropped by a monster punch. And nobody will ever forget the last time someone willed themselves into a no-frills brawl with “The Maine-iac”: Cabbage Correira slugged with him, and after a breathtaking series of exchanges in the opening round, Sylvia simply wore him down and knocked him out. You get the feeling that Sylvia will be exciting as he needs to be, and needs committed foes who will let it all hang out.

“Sylvia has been a hard worker. He generally fights very prepared. In past fights he’s shown a great tenacity to get after and find a way to win, and stick to his game plan. I think he’s changed a little in recent fights, just hanging on to do enough to win, instead of showing the passion and fervor he’s fought with,” Couture said. “(That) has nothing to do with decision to fight him. I’ve had trouble with big guys, grapplers, not strikers, in the past. It’s a challenge to see how I’ve improved technically. He’s an interesting guy.”
Couture always owned the clinch.

The years of Greco-Roman wrestling and attendant development of the nuanced science of trips, takedowns and controlling a guy’s center of gravity. He also single-handedly popularized the tactic of “dirty boxing,” which, in terms of tactical evolution of mixed martial arts, opened up a whole new realm of strategies. It’s another of the refined combat areas today’s fighters either become proficient in or find themselves exploited by, but before Couture, you rarely if ever saw it implemented effectively. In his first big UFC win against then-unbeaten Vitor Belfort, Couture showed that wrestling and striking could be nicely combined, dominating a relentless series of tie-ups with one hand while relentlessly hammering Belfort in close. A fist, an elbow, whatever. Shower, rinse, repeat.

Couture’s revelation was a key paradigm shift as MMA evolved. You could still have funny-looking ears and nail people in close, which definitely skewed the tactical balance back toward grapplers -- and everybody else who’d spent a lifetime wrenching people on wrestling mats.

Couture runs down a quick fight-by-fight recap of Sylvia’s recent opponents, mentally checking off each foe to see if they tried a body lock. No. Nope. Uh-uh. He misses one -- Assuerio Silva -- but to be fair, there wasn’t much to remember. The short, stocky Brazilian did little from the clinch position but jump up and wrap his legs around Sylvia’s torso, clearly unwilling to engage.

In Couture’s visualization, it’s right back in his realm. He’s not chasing the shifting, nimble-footed Liddell. He slips a punch, locks torsos, and works his magnificent sense of balance, foot sweeps and explosive Greco mojo to plant Sylvia on his back. And that’s when the fun starts. Couture was never a world-class striker, but he was adept enough at it to defend himself while seizing on an opening to close the gap. And he can control people on the ground with disdainful ease.

“I don’t know if I’ve seen anybody try it with him,” Couture says when asked why people don’t attempt to clinch the gargantuan champ. “It certainly wasn’t Monson’s style. He tried to shoot open shots, and Andrei Arlovski tried to go toe-to-toe. A few times they clinched. I think there are some dangerous things (clinching) with a guy that size.”

With the UFC’s recent acquisition of Mirko “Cro Cop”, the division is suddenly exciting again for fans, who want to see the big-hitting Croatian thrown down against the best of the big boys. Cro Cop dispatched then-unbeaten but untested Eddie Sanchez in February in his UFC debut, looking every bit the billing with his collection of precise punches and wicked, street-sweeping kicks.

“Obviously, he’s a very devastating striker. Very explosive and athletic. He still has some work to do get his ground skills where they need to be, though he is demonstrating he’s aware of that,” Couture opined. “He finished his last fight in the mount position. Not that Sanchez was at that level. I think the cage is different than the ring. There’s tactic and things he needs to get up on. If he doesn’t, somebody like me could take advantage of that.”

Couture’s return includes full-time training in Las Vegas, where he’s assembled a crew of partners that look like an NFL offensive line.

There’s 6’7 Dan Cristison, 6’9 Wes Sims. Super heavy Eric Pele goes 6’2, 350 or so, depending on which zip code he’s recently eaten. Throw in former UFC champ Frank Mir, and it’s a fine way to spend an afternoon after the morning run and lifting weights.

“I’ve got a lot of beef to push around,” he said. “You think you’re in shape, and you get in with those big guys.”

Couture expects to come into the Octagon at around 225 pounds, about where he used to be before he dropped to 205 for the first Liddell bout. In what seemed an epoch ago, back in his first run through the heavyweights circa 1997, those fighters were a far cry from today’s competition, which keeps evolving and adapting. But there’s no substitute for tough training, and Couture cites recently crowned welterweight champ St. Pierre as a perfect example of how a fighter can shore up his abilities by putting his nose to the grindstone.

“Things come in new cycles. A new athlete comes on the scene and executes a new tactic or technique and brings it to forefront. Georges is a perfect example of that,” Couture said. “He spends a lot of time with world class wrestlers and it shows. Matt had trouble taking him down, and he had to stand with him.”

And Couture himself admits that he’s had his own hard lessons in drawing a line between working on new skills while not getting overly tempted to use them at the wrong time. Tactically, he breaks down each fight with a sense of what his hierarchy of options are for each position -- a sort of working strategy tree given the dozens of ranges and scenarios, from kickboxing to working on the ground in a complex calculus of limbs, leverages, openings and potholes.

“Josh Barnett brought that home for me,” Couture said, referring to his stoppage loss in 2002 where he relied too much on jiu-jitsu instead of resisting the takedown. “I’m working off my back, being effective from there, rather than fighting takedowns tooth and nail. I conceded it a little easier. Then when you get a guy outweigh you by 30 pounds and punches you in the head, you realize it’s a mistake.”

Breaking it down. Piece-by-piece. When to show, when to go, when to keep cool and when to explode. That’s the big question against Sylvia, and Couture likes the way the hand stacks up.

“You have to realize what positions you are gonna be strong and safe in, and what ones to avoid,” he said. “Ultimately, I’m still the best when I’m on top of somebody.”

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